The multiple meanings of "research"

By Briony Penn, April 2014

Have the BC Liberals made it easier for pipelines to be built through provincial parks?

In March, the Park Act that once enshrined the protection of our parks, was pried apart by Christy Clark’s government with no public discussion. The amendment to the Act opens the door on pipelines, mining and industrial development in our parks. One voice alone was allowed to comment in the legislature: Opposition Critic for Tourism, Culture and the Arts Spencer Chandra Herbert was given five minutes. He argued at least for one simple, non-partisan amendment to the motion: “I hope, out of the goodness of mind and heart, the government will take the call from thousands upon thousands of British Columbians to put a pause, take a moment, and ask people what they think—to really be open, to really engage the people who pay our salaries, to give them the chance to have their say about their favourite areas.”

While interviewing Herbert and other critics of the bill, it was difficult to know which people thought was more egregious: the fact that Clark has opened the door to industrial development in parks, or the fact that they fast-tracked the amendments with no regard for the public interest in “their favourite areas.” 

For Herbert those areas are Cape Scott, Bowron Lakes, Garibaldi, Strathcona, Mount Robson, and Muncho Lake. As he argued passionately in the legislature, “Those are some of my favourite provincial parks. Incredible, incredible places. These are places that make our hearts beat a little faster, that make us breathe a little deeper, that provide us the wonders of the imagination, that renew the soul, that renew the spirit. That’s what parks can do.”

Parks can also get in the way—especially if you want to move natural gas, bitumen, coal, and minerals. And therein lies a clue as to why Clark might not have wanted to pause for feedback. Her passion for resource extraction and timely movement of resources is a match for Herbert’s dedication for parks. 

At first glance it is not obvious that this is pipeline-enabling legislation. The amendment was introduced, according to Minister Mary Polack, “to provide clarity for certain activities within BC’s provincial parks, including the issuing of permits for research and information gathering.” Vegetation sampling, fish surveys and geotechnical studies, were mentioned, “to assist in determining whether future economic development projects may be feasible.” 

Herbert argues, “They say it is a need to clarify terms of research but this is a completely bogus reason. BC Parks have lots of documentation on the terms of what and how research is permitted. There is a test to say these places are special. This is why we have protected them in the first place.”

Indeed, the people of British Columbia have fought long and hard to keep parks inviolate with protesters standing up to violations, for example, in Strathcona Park for over 70 years. Now the same old industrial interests appear to be creeping around the back door trying to get in again. As Bob Peart, executive director of the Sierra Club of BC, states, “The intent of the bill is masked and we are not convinced that this government has any intention to confirm park values with this bill.”

But Minister Polack claims “These amendments do not directly enable industrial projects.” A closer look, however, shows how they could indirectly enable industry. In his rebuttal at the first reading of the bill, Herbert stated, “We take particular exception to section three of the bill, which provides that permits may be granted in provincial parks for research without any requirement whatsoever to consider the impacts of that research on recreational, conservation values or the purpose of the park. The term ‘research’ is undefined. We have been informed by provincial staff that they consider the term broad enough to include bulk ore sampling and other large-scale industrial sampling and clearing activities that are clearly inconsistent with the park’s status.”

Opening the door to industrial interests under the guise of research is an old trick. The best-known example is when the International Whaling Commission imposed a moratorium on whale hunting in 1986 and Japan continued to hunt whales under the “scientific research provision” of the agreement. 

Another closer-to-home attempt at using the “research permit clause” was made in 2007 by US geologists from the University of Texas to “research” our ocean floor for the Batholith Project. The project would have used high intensity seismic surveys that, besides damaging the hearing and communication of marine mammals, are useful for determining oil and gas reserves in the seabed. Objections from environmental groups and Canadian researchers successfully prevented the project and confirmed that “research” means very different things to different people. Peart explains, “When Sierra Club uses the word ‘research,’ for example, we think about surveys of butterflies to get a better understanding of the ecological health of the park and improve the management plan. But for industry, ‘research’ is to determine whether it is a valid place to put through a pipeline or a hydro project, and it is contradictory to the management plan. So having this term ‘research’ undefined is problematic.”

Polack denies all this and claims that issuing research permits under the Park Act will “allow us to obtain more fulsome information. This is vital in making informed decisions, and will be especially important if requests for adjustments to park boundaries are eventually proposed.” (Italics added.)

This helps clarify that the direct impact this amendment will have is through adjustments in park boundaries—a contentious issue if ever there was one. Minister Polack argues that the public has nothing to fear with park boundary adjustments. She claims that they are not taken lightly, have a rigorous process, and have hardly been used in the past with only 562 hectares removed from parks since 2004. Bob Peart responds, “I don’t care about the past, I worry about the future! This is opening up the door for transmission corridors and pipelines.” (And the past isn’t totally reassuring either, given the mining allowed in Strathcona Park.)

What are the implications for parks with just the pipeline proposals that are currently on the books? According to the Ministry of Environment, of the 1030 parks and protected areas in British Columbia, 7 parks and protected areas are in the way of currently proposed pipeline projects. 

Nisga’a Memorial Lava Bed Park is in the way of two pipeline proposals: the Prince Rupert Gas Transmission Line (TransCanada), and the Westcoast Connector Gas Transmission Project (Spectra Energy). 

Finn Creek Park, North Thompson River Park, Lac Du Bois Grasslands Protected Area, Coquihalla Summit Recreation Area, and Bridal Veil Falls Park may all be impacted by the Kinder Morgan TransMountain Pipeline Expansion. 

Burnie River Protected Area has two pipelines planned for it: the Pacific Trails and Northern Gateway. 

The designation of “protected areas” already allows for pipeline construction; Class A parks do not—there would have to be a boundary adjustment and redesignation, which Polack argues would follow all the same tough rules. But would they?

To get approvals for a boundary adjustment, a company has to submit an application to the Cabinet-approved Provincial Protected Area Boundary Adjustment Policy, Process and Guidelines where extensive consultations are promised. But given the level of consultation on amendments to the Park Act itself, trust on consultation is nil. 

Government has put out a policy document for public review called the Draft Research Permit Operational Policy. Unfortunately, it does nothing to allay fears as it contains three new categories of research permit called “investigative use permits” that: determine risks or benefits to the protected area from developments, both within and adjacent to the protected area; support feasibility assessments or environmental assessments; or allow the collection of information to support a boundary adjustment request. It states, for example, that if “destructive sampling” is done, then a permit will be required, not, “sorry, no destructive sampling in the park.” As Peart states, “nothing in the policy document affirms they will uphold core park values and integrity, like seeing these areas protected.”

Many of these boundary adjustment applications are already underway. BC Parks has received Stage 1 boundary adjustment applications for the Prince Rupert Gas Transmission Project and the Kinder Morgan TransMountain Pipeline Expansion project. There has been no decision on the Prince Rupert Gas Transmission Project application; however, the Stage 1 application from Kinder Morgan was approved. There are other potential pipeline projects out there but BC Parks says that they have not received enquiries yet. 

In the same legislative session there were boundary adjustments on six parks, one conservancy, and one ecological reserve. On the other hand, there was also an expansion of the protected area system by 55,000 hectares with additions of land to two parks and two conservancies, mostly due to the Atlin-Taku land use plan, and four marine conservancies on the Central Coast.

Spencer Chandra Herbert gets the last word: “Parks were established by us for us and they don’t belong to Liberal cabinet ministers. To take an action whereby you make it easier for mining the parks without talking to any British Columbians is untenable. These are their parks; if you want to make a change you need to go to them.”

Briony Penn PhD has been reporting on the environment since her first article in The Islander in 1975 on Garry oak meadows and has been a columnist in Victoria publications since 1993.